Anatomy of a Big One

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1998

Anatomy of a Big One

Riding huge surf is simple, really: Know how the wave works, time your entry right, and, um, hope for the best.
By Daniel Duane                                                    Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Approach
Big-wave legend Brock Little has compared the difference between paddling in to big waves and getting towed in by a jet-ski to the difference between jumping off an 80-foot cliff and riding on a roller coaster. He's not far off. To catch a wave in the 40-foot-plus range, everything must be in place. The surfer must be under the lip of the wave just enough so it looks like it's going to land on his head; he should begin his paddle from the bottom of the wave; and he needs strong, efficient, confident strokes. Even if all of this is executed perfectly, drop-in success rates on a huge day at spots like Todos Santos, Waimea Bay, and Maverick's are only slightly better than 50 percent.

The Break
As a rule, waves tend to break in depths 1.3 times their height. It's not an exact science. But a spot like Maverick's, which is 22 feet deep during an average low tide, doesn't even start capping over (with waves folding over on themselves without breaking, as open-ocean swells do) until waves are 15 to 20 feet on the face. So before they actually break — before showtime can begin — the waves need to get bigger still. Adding to the excitement: Maverick's, which breaks a half-mile out over a 75-yard patch of boulders and sandstone, is 80 feet deep just beyond it, causing swells to stand up across that reef in their rawest, nastiest form.

The Open Face
Here, obviously, is where you want to be. At the stage this wave is in, the surfer should have already made it to the bottom and begun his turn toward the shoulder; assuming this guy carves quickly, he's looking good. Skittering across the face of a wave like this feels similar to arcing a long, clean line outside the wake on a water ski, except you're outrunning an avalanche. On most big waves, it's the drop that tends to be the killer; once you get to the open face, you're home free.

The Barrel
This is an area where only a few have ventured before at the classic big-wave breaks. Also known as a tube, it often has a hypnotic effect once its height reaches 20 feet or more. The most famous tube ride in huge surf was Brock Little's perfect ten in the 1990 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest at Waimea Bay, in which the now 31-year-old Hawaiian rode deep inside the bowels of a 35-footer and came out unscathed. Tow-in surfers have gone deeper and larger since then, but Little's wave remains the most revered. Surfers often use school buses to describe the size of the tubes at the world's heaviest big-wave breaks. Inside this wave, for example, you could fit one school bus and a Dodge minivan.

The Froth
It's been said that foam from breaking waves covers 3 to 4 percent of the earth's surface at any given time, but when one of the big three spots is firing, it can seem like twice that. The froth factor can especially cause problems when a 40-foot wave lands on your back, which feels like standing under a dump truck when it's unloading several tons of wet cement. The impact from a wave like this can drive you 15 to 20 feet deep and hold you down as long as 30 seconds. Worse still is when you're held under for two consecutive waves, which, with the sheer glut of big days lately in the North Pacific, is happening all too often.

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